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In Search of King David’s Lost Empire

Historians in the News
tags: Jewish history, Israel, archaeology, The Bible, religious history



Jerusalem, in the tenth century B.C., is an inhospitable place for farmers but a strategic location for men on the run. Human settlement in the Judean highlands is sparse: five thousand people, spread out in hamlets of about fifty families each. The landscape is rugged, veined with ravines and thicketed with oaks. Rain is unpredictable. To the east lies the desert, hushed and empty. To the west—teasingly close—are the lush lowlands of the Philistine city-states, with their seaside trade routes and their princely homes. Cut off from these coastal plains, life in the hill country is severe. Homes are made of unworked stone; sheep and goats are quartered indoors. There are no public buildings, no ornate furnishings in the shrines. Bands of fugitives, landless laborers, and tax evaders rove the Judean wilderness. These rebel gangs—viewed by the neighboring Egyptians as both a nuisance and a threat—maraud the nearby villages. They collect protection money and pillage the locals, making off with their women and their cattle. They terrorize the Philistines, and then, in a sudden turnaround, offer their services to a Philistine king in exchange for shelter.

Their leader is a wily, resourceful man from Bethlehem, who decides that his people are meant for more than lightning raids and mercenary stints. He sends his men to rout an advancing force, then shares the loot with the highland elders. This wins over the highlanders, and, in time, they make him chieftain of the southern hill area. He takes over the tribal center of Hebron, and later captures Jerusalem, another hilltop stronghold. The chieftain moves his extended family to the main homes of the Jerusalem village, and settles in one himself—a palace, some might call it, though there is nothing extravagant about it. He rules over a neglected chiefdom of pastoralists and outlaws. His name is David.

Israel Finkelstein’s vision of King David—the vagabond, the racketeer—helped make his career as an eminent Biblical archeologist. But, when he began his research in the area, he was interested less in the Bible than in migration patterns. In 1993, Finkelstein was a newly tenured professor at Tel Aviv University, forty-four years old and known as something of an iconoclast. He was working on a book called “Living on the Fringe,” which took up questions of human habitation in the ancient southern Levant—particularly Canaan, the site of what is now Israel. Finkelstein argued that the first settlers came there as a result of internal changes in the region; nomadic societies became sedentary for a few generations during periods of successful trade, then uprooted themselves, then settled again. The Israelites, he claimed, were “of local stock”—that is, Bedouin nomads.

The Bible, of course, tells it differently. In the Old Testament story, Canaan is where the Hebrews ended their exodus, and where David secured for his people a glorious kingdom. From about 1,000 B.C., he and his son Solomon ruled over a vast monarchy that encompassed four defeated kingdoms, stretching as far north as the Euphrates River and as far south as the Negev Desert. (Archeologists derive the date from an inscription on a portal gate in the Egyptian city of Karnak, which lists the military conquests of King Shoshenq—thought to be the same king mentioned in the Bible as Shishak.) The United Monarchy, as it is known, represented the golden age of ancient Israel; though it probably lasted no more than a generation or two, its legacy has persisted for thousands of years. For Jews, Finkelstein told me, David “represents territorial sovereignty, the legend of the empire.” For Christians, he is “directly related to Jesus and the birth of Christianity.” For Muslims, he is a righteous prophet who preceded Muhammad. The story of David, Finkelstein added, “is the most central thing in the Bible, and in our culture.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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